Culture and Life
by Rob Gowland
Make room for your set-top boxes
I see the Federal Government is determined to get us all using digital television whether we want it or not — and so far most Australians don't, apparently. Only around 25,000 digital TV sets have been sold to date, because people just can't see what spending all that extra money does for them. Actually, digital TV is not really about improving our TV reception or programs at all; it's about providing new ways of selling goods and services, by bringing interactive data services right into your home, linked to your phone and television. Instead of just watching the races you will be able to interact with the TAB from home while watching the races (or even more than one race at once). Banking, shopping, accessing legal services, real estate agents, you name it, talking to them by phone while viewing documents, sales pitches, what have you, on your wide-screen TV in your own home. Whether it's accessing movies or selling your car, digital TV is supposedly going to make your life so much better. And as for home shopping! But it seems that these are not services that people feel deeply about. No one, it seems, feels deprived because they don't have access to this technology. Certainly, very few people are eager to spend the money necessary to get it. That does not please either the Kerry Packers or the Rupert Murdochs or the Kerry Stokes of our fair land. Whether it's cable or broadcast, their next big milch cow depends on the Australian public being made to take up digital TV. Senator Richard Alston, the Minister for Communications, is doing his best for their business concerns, promising, God help us, a summit on the weighty question of set-top boxes. Cable TV uses a set-top box to unscramble the signal so you can view it. Broadcast digital TV would also need one. The commercial broadcasters (the present providers of "free to air" TV) want the same box to be used for all. The cable operators naturally want the broadcasters (the competition) to have to pay for their own boxes. (Ain't capitalism grand — again? And of course the public would actually do the paying, but you know what they're on about.) These two wealthy lobbies have got such a stranglehold over the presentation of these possible (they are not essential) new steps in domestic and business communication that Senator Alston is actually copping flak because of the low number of digital TV sets sold. One way to increase the sale of digital TVs would be to allow the free to air broadcasters to put out multiple channels (you can do that with digital TV). This would be popular with viewers (it's the main appeal of cable) and would make digital TV sets desirable. It is not viewed with kindliness by the cable systems however, for obvious reasons. For reasons connected to datacasting deals, the nine and ten networks are not keen on it either. Only Kerry Stokes, apparently, wants the government to pursue that option. Senator Alston it seems is not so keen on the commercial broadcasters' call for a single set-top box. He gave this masterly and incisive statement to the media: "We want them [commercial broadcasters] to drill down and demonstrate a business case for all this and there might well not be [one] at all — particularly if the starting point is [that] set-top boxes are so expensive people can't afford two, therefore we need to share a single box. "That falls over if all of a sudden there are very cheap set-top boxes around and that may well be what's going to happen in the not too distant future. "At the end of the day, does it really matter if you have three devices?" At the end of the day, in the morning and at the going down of the sun, does it matter if Ministers use lots of cliches strung end to end? Since the "reform" of broadcasting involves processes unrelated to the provision of quality programming, the Minister seems unconcerned with getting any input from the ABC. He feels the ABC at present would be best served by focussing on public broadcasting, although he prefers the term "their core business". But the business people are at Foxtel, Seven, Nine, Ten and their digital/telecom partners. Of them, Alston says piously: "Our job is really to ensure we take all their views properly into account, we don't commercially disadvantage them, but at the end of the day [obviously the expression of the month, this one] we have a workable regime that's in the best interests of consumers." That'll be a neat trick, Richard: finding a solution that's "in the best interests of consumers" and yet doesn't "commercially disadvantage" Packer and Murdoch. When have the best interests of consumers ever been allowed to get in the way of their commercial advantage?